On the Growl

On Tap by Jim Cavan / September, 2016

Hitting the road with Granite State Tours

With all 14 passengers safely aboard Greta the Growler Getta—flagship of the North Hampton, New Hampshire–based Granite State Growler Tours—lead tour guide Mark Chag quickly sets the day’s whimsical tone. “Just your luck!” Chag brays in trademark New England brogue. “Getting on a bus where the blind guy’s driving and the deaf guy’s answering questions!”

Hearty laughs unfurl—a common occurrence during this Sunday sojourn, which takes us to four Seacoast breweries in a little under five hours. A Growler Tour can be many things—engrossing history lesson, crash course on an ever-bourgeoning local beer scene, excuse for quasi-heavy day drinking—but there’s one thing on which all can agree: it’s a really, really good time. And more than worth the $60 ticket price.

“Mark and I have known each other since we were eight, so we have a unique dynamic,” says founder David Adams. “I think people appreciate our interactions, because we aren’t just driving folks around; we’re trying to share what we love—about beer, about New Hampshire—and they’re eager to learn.”

Adams, who doubles as the outfit’s full-time driver, has long been in tune with the country’s growing craft-brew love affair. Chag, however, talks of taking a more circuitous path to beer enlightenment. “For me, the history came first. I didn’t know much about beer, but David wanted me to come aboard to give that perspective,” Chag says. He’s since become a full-blown craft aficionado. “I had some background in the history of beer in thearea—about [long-ago Portsmouth giant] Frank Jones Brewery, for instance. But a lot of this stuff was found by reading relentlessly Lots and lots of old books, thousands and thousands of pages, just to find those little nuggets that pop up.

”The resulting dynamic between Adams’s easygoing sagacity and Chag’s theatrical archaeology is practiced without feeling rote. And it’s a big reason why many in today’s group, comprised of far-flung family and siblings-in-law, are repeat customers.

We meet in the still-empty parking lot of North Hampton’s Throwback Brewery, which will be the final stop of the afternoon. In a few hours, the driveway and surrounding grass will be lined with cars, patrons packing the converted farmhouse’s restaurant and brewhouse for a limited release of Fat Alberta, one of Throwback’s most beloved libations. During the three stops in between, we’ll sample a panoply of styles from some of the Seacoast’s most ambitious nanobreweries—a palette whose paints have spawned increasingly intricate shades and hues. Interpreted all the while by two guys who understand, and never cease to celebrate, the bigger beer picture.

Earth Eagle Brewings
165 High Street
Portsmouth, NH

At any given time, Earth Eagle Brewings in Portsmouth will feature six to eight house-made offerings. Half are iterations even a novice imbiber will recognize: IPAs, stouts, sours, and the like. Scan the board a little more closely, though, and the double takes won’t be far behind. Catnip, wormwood, elderflower, mushrooms—these are just some of the fixings co-owners Alex McDonald and Butch Heilshorn have incorporated into their growing catalog of gruits, the catch-all term for brews that feature flowers, herbs, and other plant fodder in place of hops. Or, as today’s tour-goers soon find out, an entire severed boar’s head, used to stew the bracingly smoky (and strangely delicious) Porter Cochon.

Tipping back an Earth Eagle gruit, one can feel psychically transported to some sodden rural hut in ninth-century England, copper cauldron steaming in the corner. The stuff just tastes of bygone times, like a rustic mead or barely leavened bread. According to Heilshorn, this is somewhat by design. “It’s great to discover that there was this whole other abandoned world of beer that really no one was exploring,” Heilshorn says. “My wife’s an herbalist, so I live in an apothecary surrounded by these bags and tinctures and bottles of different herbs, many of which grow around here. So it’s a unique way of getting into the terroir of beer.”

To be sure, that kind of epicurean deep dive isn’t for everybody; if you’re looking for whatever’s closest to Bud Light, try a sample glass of 5.5 percent stout. But Earth Eagle’s intentions are not elitist—a fact fast borne out by the onetime-garage’s charming tin kitsch and homey vibe. Owing to its always-broadening brews (and food!), Earth Eagle—together with neighboring subsidiary A&G Homebrew Supply—has emerged as the risk-taking rebel of the Portsmouth beer scene. And if the three-deep bar lines and ceiling-high din are any indication, it’s a fitting label indeed. “For us, that’s the biggest measure of our success,” Heilshorn says. “When people keep coming back. ”Even for an offal-infused Captain Beefparts.

Stoneface Brewing Co.
436 Shattuck Way, #6
Newington, NH

Few brews have captured the hearts of Seacoast beer-lovers more than local bar-tap favorite Stoneface IPA from Stoneface Brewing Co. in Newington, New Hampshire. And rightly so: citrusy without being fruity, hoppy without leaving a back-tongue oil slick, Stoneface’s linchpin libation strikes a near-perfect balance between the dank and the drinkable. But one-trick pony these ale artisans are not. Co-owner Peter Beauregard was a home brewer in the high tech biz who kept winning awards for his beers, so he decided to go pro. From the trend-perfecting (Mozaccalypse Double IPA) to the style-defining (its porter is pure viscous bliss), Stoneface has crystallized the ethos of doing a handful of things insanely well.

Compared to Earth Eagle’s two-barrel curio, Stoneface headquarters—a cavernous warehouse fronted by a quaint, wood-paneled taproom—feels downright industrial. That’s mostly optics, of course: at 45 barrels, Stoneface very much remains a microbrewery n both scope and spirit; “Live free, drink craft” is their tagline. Still, the juxtaposition is an instructive one and underscores the vivid variance at play within the greater Seacoast beer scene. Which helps explain why, despite a finite market of palates, these upstart brew-mongers are far more focused on collaboration than competition.

Tributary Brewing Company
10 Shapleigh Road
Kittery, ME

Stomachs padded by a batch of fresh soft pretzels—recipe courtesy of Adams’s wife, Crystal, and hand-delivered by Adams’s mother, Joanne—we embark for Kittery’s Tributary Brewing Company. During the 15-minute drive, Chag regales us with the legend of Frank Jones, long-ago New Hampshire congressman and founder of the eponymous ale-making giant. At its peak, the Frank Jones Brewery was one of the largest in the world, cranking out a whopping 150,000 barrels a year. In 1950, 48 years after Jones’s death, the Portsmouth-based behemoth finally closed its doors. Today, only a few of the brewery’s brick buildings remain, its namesake’s legacy left largely to the region’s historical stacks, save for the Barrington restaurant that shares his name—and the ale’s original recipe.

Fitting, then, that Chag’s latest loquacious chapter ends at the feet of arguably the region’s most accomplished brewmaster: Tributary architect Tod Mott. After decades in the vanguard of the craft-beer revolution—including stints at the Harpoon and Portsmouth Breweries—Mott, along with wife Galen, opened Tributary in 2014. Since then, it’s been a whirlwind of buzz and growing fanfare, buoyed by Mott’s singular, style-spanning mastery.

Sure, there’s the world-famous Russian Imperial Stout, rechristened from Kate the Great to Mott the Lesser following his amicable departure from the Portsmouth Brewery (the limited releases, meanwhile, remain arrive-at-sunrise affairs). But Mott’s Midas touch is as delicate as it is varied; from his staple Citra-forward Pale Ale to the divine Dunkelweizen, Tributary’s offerings reveal a malt-and-hop maestro at the top of his game.

And yet, Mott has never let the heady accolades betray his affable air. Upon arrival, we’re ushered into Tributary’s gleaming brewhouse—currently clipped at around 750 barrels per year (BPY) and with room enough for at least five more tanks. Astride a short flight of tank steps, Mott recounts the genesis of his newest endeavor the only way he knows how: with a mix of humor and humility as well worn as his trademark brewer’s beard.

“Our motto is, ‘One tributary leads to another,’” Mott says. It’s an adage that underscores not only Mott’s hyperlocal sourcing but also his and Galen’s steadfast commitment to environmental stewardship. Whether or not Mott wants to admit it, though, that axiom is being flipped on its head, where all roads—and that of any New England beer pilgrimage in particular—lead to Kittery’s Post Office Square, and the tremendous Tributary Brewing Company.

Throwback Brewery
7 Hobbs Road
North Hampton, NH

By the time our fourth and final ride gets underway, all 14 passengers (your humble correspondent included) are aglow with half-tipsy smiles. But the day’s tasty swansong still remains, in the form of Throwback’s much-anticipated Fat Alberta release.

As expected, the barn-turned-brewery is teeming with eager patrons. Being Greta’s last stop, Adams and Chag bid a formal adieu, pausing to take pictures with the group before joining them in Throwback’s Christmas-lit brewhouse for the final hurrah.

Like many of their craft-beer brethren, Throwback’s Annette Lee and Nicole Carrier have garnered a loyal local following. Rather than blindly heeding the industry’s hop-heavy trends, however, Lee and Carrier have made pilsner-to-porter diversity their guiding mantra.

But today is about one beer and one beer alone: Fat Alberta, the imperial stout that (I kid you not) tastes exactly like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. Just one sip of this 9.5-percent ABV liquid dessert, you’ll understand why there’s a mandatory four-bottle purchasing limit.

Soaking in the scene’s easy Sunday verve, it all seems so fitting: this winding tour—a metaphor for the region’s unique brewing history—ending in a place so beloved and brimming with promise. “When I first started, I was like, ‘Well, I’m going to brew some beer and maybe someone will come in and drink it with me,” Lee recalls. “So to have this response—to a beer I love so much; to a lot of beers I love so much—I never, ever expected that.”

Granite State Growler Tours
46 Lafayette Rd
North Hampton, NH


UPDATE: Tours now include the Seacoast's newest brewery, Four Pines Brewing Company in Hampton, NH.


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